The Myth About Pastors

The myth about pastors, simply stated, is that we are helpers; that ours is a helping profession, counted alongside doctors and nurses and emergency responders and teachers and social workers.

Over and over again in my ministry, however, I am reminded that pastors are not helpers. We are not fixers or healers or solvers. We do not, cannot, provide help. Which may sound shocking, because people often turn to pastors for help … and pastors, in turn, like to think that they provide concrete help to others. But no, it is all a myth.

A story might add some explanation to my myth-busting:

This past week, my congregation loaned me out to the wider church to volunteer at our denominational outdoor camp. For seven days, my pastoral time and energy were focused on keeping an energetic group of 3rd – 6th graders safe as they climbed mountains & hiked streams & developed new friendships & peered closely at poison ivy, and on creating opportunities for them to connect the concept of God with the natural world around them.

At camp, falls and scrapes and bumps and bruises occur frequently. In my experiences with this particular age group, every fall or scrape or bump or bruise is inevitably a painful reminder to a young person that camp is not home. Last week, there was one camper in my group for whom a bumped toe prompted homesickness-related sleeping difficulties. “I can’t fall asleep, are you sure that we shouldn’t call the camp nurse to look at my toe, the ice pack isn’t helping, I have to pee (1am), I have to pee (4am).” “It’s okay, I can look at your foot again, I can walk with you down the path to the bathroom, let’s wrap your toe in a Hello Kitty bandage.”

But at the end of all that I could do for my camper and her toe at 4am, she still had to fall asleep in her bunk by herself. She still had to lie in her sleeping bag and navigate her own way through those dark-of-night moments of worry, the tears of homesickness, and the fears of that spider on the ceiling. I could not help her with those things. For all of the ways that I could talk and listen and keep her company and provide band-aids and emphasize that any deer wandering through camp would be more afraid of her than she was of it, ultimately she was alone with her thoughts. I could not get into her brain to help relieve the busy fears in her mind. I could not take every bug out of the cabin or add electricity to our small A-frame or make camp feel more like home so that she would feel more at ease during the night. She alone had to get herself to sleep.

I cannot help to mend or provide the tangible things of life, nor even help to resolve the emotional and spiritual wrestlings of life. I can be present; I cannot help.

The same truth plays out in my parish: I can sit and talk with a widow, but at the end of our conversation she will still return to a startlingly empty home; I cannot help to ease her heartache when she turns to tell her now-gone loved one a funny snippet about the day; I cannot help her find a new pattern for falling asleep without her spouse beside her. I can hear and affirm someone’s hard questions of faith or their grappling reaches for God when those are shared with me over coffee or from a hospital bed, but I cannot hand out pre-packaged faith and I cannot help someone feel the Eternal Steadfast Rock beneath his feet if he is convinced that It is not there. I can visit a child or a grandparent in the hospital, but I cannot help their bodies feel better. I can say small words of compassion when people call my church looking for food, for rent assistance, for enough gas to drive to a new job, for new school clothes for their children; I cannot fix their finances or reassure their desperation, even though I am more truthful than they might know when I say “I understand.”

But I cannot help.

All of this may be not be profound, I suspect. It may just seem that I am taking “help” too literally. Of course I cannot actually cause someone to fall asleep. Of course I cannot make someone believe in God or hold onto faith. Of course I cannot heal a body as a physician might. Of course the tangible forms of aid that I can offer are limited. “That doesn’t mean that pastors aren’t helpers.” I can hear the objections now.

Although sometimes I bemoan the limits of my usefulness, in fact I feel no need for guilt or self-flagellation or even encouraging responses of “You are a great helper!” In the best light, the clearing-away of this “pastor = helper” myth frees me to do the work of my actual calling:

I am a walker … or rather, a walk-with-er.

My calling in ministry — our calling in ministry as pastors — is to walk with people, not to help them. To observe life together with them, not to fix it. To point out God moments (and Hell moments) along the journey, but not to be God. To witness to faith & love & Spirit in such a way that others feel emboldened in faith & love & Spirit, but not to claim the final authority or greatest insight on it all. To remind the community that we can do more (and here’s the ironic, contradictory, counter-intuitive twist where we would otherwise buy into the helper myth) by making room for everyone’s gifts to be used and included, not by burning every last iota of my own energy and gifts. To listen to the questions for which there are not answers, not to present an unshakable certainty about life and God.

We are walk-with-ers, walk-beside-ers. It is an enormous and humbling call. But it is not synonymous with being called to help others.

Perhaps it seems superfluous to try to dispel the helper myth. What’s the harm, after all, of thinking that pastors can help people? Isn’t it simply a nuancing of verbs?

The danger of churches continuing to believe (because many churches do believe) that their pastors are helpers is that congregations will rely solely on their pastors to do the work of community-building and pastoral care. It is the danger of congregations hoping in vain that the face of a new (and often young) pastor will alone resurrect a congregation. It is the danger of congregations requiring the pastor to single-handedly accomplish the healing of dysfunctions and of timid faith and of low attendance without any obligation or participation from the congregation.

The danger of pastors believing that they are helpers is that they/we will burn out from trying to help. That in our eagerness to be helpful to all people, we will forget our limitations. That we will neglect to invite the congregation to participate in its own ministry. That we will abuse our authority and overstep boundaries in our righteous (and self-righteous) certainty that we can provide help. That we will hurt our congregations in our rush to save them, in our forgetfulness to walk with them.

I am at a loss for a grand conclusion, except to repeat again that the helper myth risks far more damage than good for pastors and congregations alike. At a recent ordination & installation service at which I presented the charge to both ordinand and congregation, I observed aloud that pastors are not Jesus; we are witnesses to what Jesus does. We are witnesses to people’s lives and to the life of a congregation. We are invitation-givers who call the entire body to do the work of following Christ. Sometimes we are the dreamers and leaders, but foremost we are the walk-beside-ers who observe the wild/wide range of life & faith in such a way that the community itself catches sight of the path and finds the compassion to lead one another on the journey.

I am a walk-with-er.

I am a pastor, not a helper.

23 thoughts on “The Myth About Pastors

  1. What a wonderful reminder of our calling and purpose as pastors. I wish every congregation could/would read this! Thank you so much for your words!

  2. Lovely stuff. Henri Nouwen wrote that we have to stop seeking to be relevant in this same vein. We aren't helpers. We aren't cultural instigators. We're pastors and priests. That is all. Thanks for the post.

  3. With all due respect, I think you are off the mark entirely. We are called to be a proclaimer of the Gospel and a minister of the Sacraments and the presence of Jesus himself in every situation. If that isn't help to a dying world in need of more from a pastor than hand holding and a box of kleenex, I don't know what is. I would refer you to the Epistle of James.

  4. Interesting thoughts, Archer. I agree that we are called to proclaim good news, to share the broken bread & poured wine & overwhelming waters of life, and to represent God With Us in all situations … and I'd observe that these actions are very much aspects of the walking-with ministry that is church pastoring. I don't disagree that the world needs help (most definitely it does!), but I don't believe that we are called to be its rescuers/saviors.

  5. Yes pastors are not religous social workers and they are not “quivering masses of availiabity.” A priest in the holy catholic church brings the Gospel to bear. There is nothing more relevent than proclaiming the free forgivness of sins in Christ Jesus our Lord. There is nothing more comforting than receiving our Lord's body and blood. Every pastoral conversation should be evaluated in light of the Law and the Gospel. See Bonheoffer on this one. I may be missing your point, but you do not seem to be coming at pastoral care from a catholic, orthodox perspective.

  6. Thank you, Rachel. I often feel that all my congregation wants from me is to be a helper; if I am something more or different than that, then they too might have to be more or different than they are or want to be.

  7. Hi Rachel!
    Toward Archer's point – as you are likely aware, many N American clergy have evolved from a people of relevancy and opinion, toward folk keen on chaplaincy and hand-holding. Yes, pastoral ministry DOES have its place. However, for some time I have been seriously concerned with the way we have given up our public voices, in many cases -speaking out against injustice, greed, poverty and the like – much to our detriment, in lieu of pacifying and 'being present.' The boldness of proclamation, the risk of taking a political stance, the boldness we find in Acts etc. has been too often overlooked in favor of simply sojourning with others. Yes, I see your point, we are to be real and to be on a real journey – but I worry that this emphasis is not helping us strive for the entirety of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. Yes, we are helpers, but I think this must be defined in a much wider sense. Thought provoking post, thanks.


  8. Agreed, Chris. Pastors (especially white American pastors) have very much given up our “speaking truth to power” voices … or at least, there are too few of us doing it, and money is playing a terrible role in the ways that some religious voices are prioritized for our hearing. I like to think that “walking with others” has ample room for raising our voices/lives for justice and social concern — that is, we need to walk with people in all social circumstances — but your point is well taken!

    Anonymous, you have me pegged, haha! Although I hold onto “catholic” (little c), I have no aspirations toward orthodox. That said, I suspect that we disagree less on pastoral theology and more on our convictions over the language used to describe our calling.

  9. Well, I'm not a pastor, so maybe I'm not part of this conversation at all; but from where I sit out here toward the back, on the far left, here's the issue. We turn to our pastors rather than to one another because we lack a model of “along-side-with” morally courageous friendship. I hesitate to reach out to other congregants in horrible situations because I have no idea how to “help” or I can't imagine how anyone could “help” and so I keep a distance. Pastors who are clear that nobody has Magic Care Bear Bandaids might interrupt this distancing–and that might be healthy all around. Meanwhile, for what it's worth, I tend to keep a distance from clergy at times of crisis precisely for fear of some helpisch gesture that would in fact leave me feeling worse. And I think I've really offended some clergy by declining “pastoral visits,” as if, were I a “better” Christian, of course I would never have surgery or cope with a badly injured child on my own. God is not Mr. Fix It, despite Jesus's miracles from time to time. So I think standing along side in simple humility really counts for something wonderful, and ALL of us need to learn how. All of that said, however, I think clergy have impossible jobs no matter what: peace be with you.

  10. You are very welcome in this conversation, Cate, and what a great observation from the back left section of the sanctuary! 🙂

    I too have avoided turning to pastors during a difficult time when I perceive that those pastors' intent to help is, in fact, entirely unhelpful. It's an act of trust to invite pastors (or anyone) to walk beside us, not a reflection of “good” or “bad” Christian faith. How true that our pastors model — for better or worse — ways for congregants to reach out to and walk beside one another!

    (That said, Magic Care Bear Bandaids would be AWESOME!)

  11. Thanks Rachel for reminding us that Church Leaders are human too! Although, having gone to church in America, I really thought I was suppose to go to the pastor for help, I think now the better word is guidance on which direction to go. Also, my perceived response from the pastor would be to pray about it, give it to God, the more that pray the better. Deep rooted myths. I have over the years always looked for a church that focused on inspiration and avoided guilt, those are hard to come by! But I have been blessed with several. Good insight!

  12. I shared this post with some colleagues and the conversation has been similar. Help comes in many forms. People struggle with “fixing” or “helping.” The most interesting thread in the conversation, however, was about prophetic ministries. We are called, some say, to stand up for injustice, to participate in the ongoing work of the Kingdom, to address social ills etc. This is true enough…but I resonate so strongly with your post that I wonder if the average congregational pastor is called to prophetic work after all. Perhaps we're not. Perhaps the congregation is the last place for the prophetic to happen…Thoughts?

  13. Intriguing questions & conversations, Tripp. Do prophetic ministries = helping? Can congregational pastors do prophetic work, and/or are we called to prophetic work?

    I dearly want to say, “Yes of course pastors can do prophetic work!” because it is important to me. Yet pastors are called into (and our time & talents are dominated above all by) the congregation; we are not called to be Lone Rangers for social justice whose care for the church community is secondary. When pastors do social justice or speak prophetically, I believe that we are called to do so in such a way that our congregations are included and motivated to do likewise. Of course, congregations — as with all communities and organizations — necessarily seek stability and establish norms, which makes prophetic work a slow process (if the community participates in the prophetic/justice work as it should), even in the boldest of congregations.

    Even the non-congregation-based prophetic ministry, I think, has the larger Church as its aim. Yes, feeding people makes a difference! Yes, advocating for fairness in the criminal justice system makes a difference! Yes, fighting against legislation that neglects the poor and weakens equal access to good education makes a difference! But where prophetic ministry differs from social work or secular advocacy, I think, is in its intention to change the Church's heart about justice, not only to change people's lives. Which leads me to suggest that where congregation-based pastors *are* able to be prophetic may be in our calling (should we accept it) to change our congregants' hearts about hunger, poverty, war, etc … and to change people's theologies about God's will and work in response to injustice.

    All of that said, at the very least, I'm suggesting that pastors don't lose anything by discarding the label of and the ambition to be helpers; it may, in fact, make us better and healthier pastors.

  14. “Changing the hearts of the congregation.” Yes. That's it. This is, of course, essential work in bringing about the Jubilee, God's Reign, The Kingdom of God. Good stuff there, Rachel.

    For me it comes down to finding time to establish a healthy example. Congregational ministers have myriad time commitments. Marching in rallies might not be one of them frequently enough for some people. Churches are not necessarily fashioned for such work. We are worshiping communities, places to help fashion faithful community, fellowships of mutual care and support. Does this seem vapid to some? Probably. But if that support system encourages the members to live Kingdom lives and to walk in solidarity with the poor, the widow, the orphan, then we're doing our jobs even if we never stand in the courtrooms of the nation.

    Finally, it's important to remember that pulpits are public. When we preach we do so in a public forum. Our ministries, our proclamations are public. We just might not have the cash money for a nationally televised broadcast.

    Thanks again!

  15. Like with sermons, it's hard to get all the truths (including opposite truths) into a single blog entry. What I like about this blog entry is that it addresses the church's/congregation's problem with clergy addiction, clergy self-care, and many other important insights. After years of being a pastor I've learned to do a pretty good job with my boundaries and at the same time engage in a very important healing ministry. The ministry is less about me than it is about the wonderful people that have opened their lives and their problems up to me and the wonderful training I received, along with my own personal therapy, that has enabled me to help/heal/care, and in the process I continue to be helped/healed/and cared for. I think the important thing is to remember it's always a two way street. Helping can be patronizing if it's one way.

  16. Great conversation, everyone.

    When I was doing my training (now aka formation for ministry), we were taught that a minister has 3 roles – prophet, priest and pastor. This post only addresses one of those, although the comments have taken up the other two. 🙂

    I learned very early on in my pastoral care courses that pastoral care was *not* mounting a white charger to fix things for others, but as Rachel said, walking with. Twenty-four years down the track, I am getting much better at avoiding the white charger. In my protestant denomination (Uniting Church in Australia), we understand the priestly role as facilitating the relationship of others with God, rather than going into God's presence in their stead.

    The prophetic is calling people (back to) God and often involves saying and doing things that are not popular. Mind you, when I made a banner and invited members of the congregation to march with me in a protest about Australia joining the war in Iraq, *so* many people were very pleased to be able to do so. This was not just being prophetic, but facilitating members of the congregation to be prophetic as well. 🙂

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